This article features in A Fantasy Writers’ Handbook, available now in paperback via Amazon and to pre-order for ebook. Released 12.06.2019.
I see many questions about naming characters and places, in the fantasy genre in particular. How different should they be? Should they have surnames and grandiose titles? Should I stick an apostrophe in the middle to make it sound more fantasyish?
I’ve done a bit of research and knocked together a guide to ease those naming woes.
Coming up with names
Let’s start with the hard part. I like George R.R. Martin’s approach. He takes existing names and gives them a slight twist. John becomes Jon, Edward becomes Eddard, and in what has to be the slightest tweak of all, Jamie becomes Jaime. The point is they’re different.
George R.R. Martin also suggests turning to baby books. No doubt he undertakes a similar sort of process, picking names both common and unusual and changing them about if he feels the need. This approach of taking a common name and playing about with it I’ve found particularly helpful—it strikes a balance between clarity and originality. I simply write down a name, replace letters, remove letters, reorganise, shorten, lengthen. Playing around with vowels is a method I particularly enjoy. For instance, take the name Hal and swap the vowel around—A, E, I, O, U—you can make a different name out of everyone.
Another approach is trying online fantasy name generators, and there are shit loads of them. Here’s just one: http://www.fantasynamegenerators.com/. I had a browse and this is what I got for elf names:
Some aren’t bad—Alok, Jhaan, Lhoris—but most provide the perfect examples of names that aren’t ideal. Too difficult to pronounce. Too wordy. Trying too hard. We’ll go into more detail shortly.
One last thing before we move on. When you’re set on a name, say it aloud. How does it sound? Then Google it to see if it means something else. Better safe than sorry.
Clarity is king
In fantasy, it’s fair to say some names can be a bit crazy. Where did the love for the spontaneous apostrophe materialise?
“Calt’huun looked at Lym’r, then at Ecka’rd, before at last turning to Pn’agy’my.”
I just made that up, but you get the idea. A complex name can draw negative attention, jar the reader’s flow and cause headache-provoking frustration if it’s too difficult to pronounce.
What do other authors do? Raymond E. Feist called his protagonist in The Riftwar Saga Pug. Three letters. Simple. Likewise, Brandon Sanderson in his Mistborn series named his protagonist Vin. George R.R. Martin did the same with Jon and Bran. Nice and simple, no question marks over how it’s pronounced.
The names of protagonists and antagonists will feature heavily in your books so avoiding complexity is desirable. Not only that, you’ll get fed up of typing it out every time.
The danger of similar sounding names
Linked to clarity, giving characters similar sounding names isn’t doing your readers any favours.
In the A Song of Ice and Fire books, for instance, Theon’s sister is called Asha. Then there’s the wildling woman who looks after Rickon Stark called Osha (notice the swapping of the vowels). In the TV series, the decision was made to change Asha to Yara due to the risk of confusion. It people found that confusing the same problem is likely to crop up with one of your own.
Characterising through names
A bland character blends in with the greyness, living briefly in the minds of readers. An eccentric name amid a sea of mundanity can help set a character apart. One way to characterise with a name is to use a surname or title. In David Gemmel’s Legend, one of the central characters is Druss the Legend. In Star Wars, Luke is a pretty dull name, but Skywalker livens it up tremendously.
Think about nicknames too. They can be an effective way to say a lot about a character without having to say anything at all. The Hound or The Mountain from Game of Thrones for example.
Characters’ age and background
Like in the real world, in fantasy realms names could go out of date. You may have an old man with a name long forgotten amongst the populace. Or the opposite may be true. In our world, we have a shit tonne of John’s, James’s, David’s etc. Your fantasy world could have a whole host of common names too. But always keep clarity in mind. If these characters are central to your story, try and avoid using the same or similar sounding names unless you can give them clear distinguishing features.
A character’s background is important too. In your fantasy world people from different regions, kingdoms, countries or continents aren’t going to have similar sounding names. It’s unlikely someone born in China is going to be called Mark. Again, George R.R. Martin is a believer in this principle. A character from Braavos doesn’t have a similar name to someone from Winterfell.
They can be underused in fantasy. You may have an orphan character who has no surname, or you could have a monarch with a proud surname rich with tradition and history. Lannister or Stark, for instance. And look at the use of Snow and Sand in Game of Thrones and the sway they carry in the story.
Consider adding meanings
A lot of names have meanings behind them such as in African, Arabic and Celtic cultures. African names, in particular, have some beautiful meanings behind them. It’s worth doing some research.
I’ll leave you with some further reading. Here’s a good article on fantasy names from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/mar/16/fantasy-character-names
If you enjoyed this article, why not stay in touch by joining my growing writing community? Everyone who joins receives a list of book reviewers, lists of publishers of short and long fantasy fiction, a free ebook, and a bunch of short stories.